On the Road to Kurdistan

by Oakland Ross

Irbil, Iraq -- In order to appreciate some of the practical subtleties that nowadays distinguish the southern and northern regions of Iraq, the astute visitor should first conduct a simple exercise in word substitution.
First, for the word "terror," insert the expression "picnics."
Second, for the term "improvised explosive device," select instead "wedding parties."
These two linguistic adjustments should help to prepare a foreign visitor for the 40-minute drive from Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan - as the northern portion of the country is known - up to Shaqlawa, a bucolic destination in a beautiful mountain setting.
A similar outing in southern or central Iraq might yield any number of actual consequences, not all of them deadly, by any means. Still, the journey would almost certainly involve a considerable measure of anxiety.
But northern Iraq, home to most of the country's large Kurdish minority, has managed to transform itself into a haven of relative calm in a country where violence has become an explosive daily feature, tearing limbs, lives, families and an entire society apart.
I was not looking for bombs, however. I was looking for picnics, those happy outdoor gatherings that are to Iraqis more or less what oxygen is to many other cultures - a biological necessity.
So it is that the roadway to Shaqlawa winds through a crowded succession of family groups clustered in the sparse shade of eucalyptus or poplar trees, each with a grill pumping smoke into the blue autumn sky, a collapsible table, an assortment of portable chairs and a lot of food.
Picnics are not the only sort of social function that decorates the broad shoulders of the Irbil to Shaqlawa road. There are also al fresco wedding parties, which tend to begin in the afternoon.
Some of these celebrations are impressive affairs. As I drove north in the late morning, I encountered large arrays of plastic chairs - typically red chairs, for some reason - arranged in vast semicircles, interspersed with huge loudspeakers, all contained in vacant fields just metres from the road and all just waiting for the festivities to begin.
But I was looking for picnics.
I soon came across a likely group, who turned out to be 16 members of the Toma clan from a village called Inkawa, near Irbil.
"I'm surprised you haven't heard of it," said Jabar Toma, an English teacher by profession and the family's patriarch by right of birth. "I thought the whole world had heard of Inkawa."
Sadly, not yet.
The Toma clan, however, were evidently delighted to welcome a stranger into their midst, immediately plying me with kebabs of beef from the grill, sections of fresh oranges, slices of cucumber, not to mention the mouthpiece of a large hookah, followed by a glass of Dewar's scotch with ice and water.
Alcoholic beverages? Here in Islamic Kurdistan, where people officially eschew the consumption of spirituous libations?
"We are Christians," explained Shawqir Peter, a physician and a nephew of the elder Toma.
Like most residents of Inkawa, the Toma family are members of Iraqi Kurdistan's small community of Assyrian Christians. They say they get along fine with the region's dominant Kurdish culture.
"We have no troubles," said Peter. "No troubles previously. No troubles now."
In fact, if this family is anything to judge by, they are doing very well, indeed. In addition to an English teacher and a doctor, the group included an engineer, a dentistry student and two phys-ed teachers, among other success stories.
After a round of picture taking, followed by an enthusiastic exchange of email addresses, I returned to my car to resume the journey to Shaqlawa, a lovely green village with several cafes and restaurants and a jumble of small shops, all bustling even on this, the Muslim holy day.
On the return trip to Irbil, I stopped by a high mountain ridge to say hello to another Iraqi patriarch, 57-year-old Hadji Hamad, whose second-born of three sons had just been married.
With the rest of the clan, Hamad was out in the cool afternoon light, celebrating the occasion. The young women of the family dazzled in their long pink or blue gowns, and everyone mingled and chatted with one another, just as though they were revellers gathered in a private garden somewhere, instead of being collected on a narrow stretch of gravel by the side of a paved two-lane road.
Farther south, the quantity of picnickers had picked up considerably since the morning, and the big wedding parties were all in full swing, with hundreds dancing to Middle Eastern music, silhouetted against the slow ebb of the desert sun.
Greetings from Iraq.

The Toronto Star, 10 November, 2007